Monday, October 24, 2005

Crackers Don't Matter

I've never really watched Farscape. A friend of mine is fixated on it as only a person who fixates on Thing That Ended Years Ago can be. I can tell you that it's about wormholes, and that the main character's name is pronounced "cry-ten," like the unrelated popular author. I can tell you there's a spaceship named Moya, guy with a metal nose named Dargo, two muppets named Rigel and Pilot, two blue chicks, and a middle-aged British chick who is an alien. Other than that, I can't tell you a whole lot.

But I can fake it.

Like the episode, "Crackers Don't Matter," where everyone goes crazy. The synopsis is simple: everyone goes crazy over crackers. I can talk about how one of the concept artists is obsessed with the work of Brom, because, well, there's an entire alien race that was ripped right out of Brom's colorful and disturbing portfolio. I can compare and contrast the apparently opposite natures of the blue chicks. And yet, I've only seen two episodes all the way through.

You see, I had a Liberal Arts education. What having a Liberal Arts education means is that I got to sit in a lot of conference-style classes with no more than two dozen other students, and discuss our reading material. As often as not (actual rates ranged from 20% to 80%, depending on the class), I didn't actually do the reading. I just pretended I did, and spoke with great authority. I have a reputation as someone with "all the answers," and I usually have something to say about just about everything. The secret is that I actually only have a sound byte of information about most things, and I'm winging it.

Here's some tips: you don't need to read any work of literature, provided you can remember its name, who wrote it and when, and what its themes are. I've successfully faked reading Don Quixote, Faust, and the Anarchist's Cookbook. The basics of faking it is being able to have a springboard to get the other person talking.

Now, in principle, I advocate knowing as much as you can about everything. I'm not saying everyone should fake it all the time. But there's only so much time to be had, and I'm a busy man. You have to prioritize. So I never actually got around to reading Don Quixote and Faust until I worked an awful job in a call center that afforded me a lot of time reading (the Anarchist's Cookbook, sadly, was not suitable fare for those tired old career Nextel representatives). In fact, I got about three dozen novels of varying lengths read during my three-month tenure working at a Nextel-outsourced joint. I didn't have a lot of alternatives. Most of the time, though I need either more free time or fewer alternatives.

Going back to the springboard idea: it's very simple, when you get the hang of it. Dodge directed questions ("what did you think of the difference between Book I and Book II of Faust?") with vague answers ("I don't know, I think I preferred the style of the first one, but I liked them both"). Let the other person provide the details. If you're talking to a well-read and gabby person, smiling and nodding can get you a free lecture on the topic of your choice, often of the same quality as you can expect from taking classes at night school. And they can walk away thinking, "My goodness, what a well-informed person."

This brings me to the most risky, but potentially most effective technique: the obscure reference. Name-dropping, done correctly, makes a person seem vastly more informed than they actually are, provided it's done correctly. Here, it's useful to have a little grounding. Don't test the waters depth with both feet at once, as the Chinese saying goes. Take philosophy: I am only familiar with the works of two or three philosophers, but I know enough about the rest to dismiss them. To any assertion of "[a philosopher] is a genius!" I can reply, "well, maybe, but he's no Wittgenstein." Assertions that "[a philosopher] gives my life meaning," I can reply, "I think Hume put the last nail in that coffin you've made for yourself." I don't even have to know who they're talking about.

Here's the biggest secret to name-dropping: always talk in a nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone, which is either suggesting that you are being knowingly witty, or politely sarcastic. You know the tone - that sort of raised-eyebrow, rakish smile kind of tone. If you *always* talk like that when dropping references, you can convince a crowd you know what you're talking about, even if each half of the room interprets it differently than the other half.

In short, I may not be Shakespeare, but I'll settle for Iago.


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